Strategic Cluster Hires

Editor’s Note: The College of Veterinary Medicine has four new cluster-hire faculty, part of an Auburn University initiative associated with research programs. Speaking about the importance of these additions to the college’s research programs, Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Studies Dr. Frank “Skip” Bartol said:

“The College of Veterinary Medicine has core faculty members in three of the five clusters, and recruited four new faculty members through this important hiring initiative. Included are two scientists in the Omics and Informatics cluster—Drs. Nancy Merner and Xu Wang—and two in the Pharmaceutical Engineering cluster—Drs. Amarjit Mishra and Maninder Sandey. These individuals bring important new perspectives, knowledge and skills to the college. Their addition to our faculty promises to catalyze competitiveness and advance our programs of research and scholarship.”

Strategic Cluster Hire Initiative Leverages Research, Strengthens Faculty Expertise

In Fall 2014, Auburn University, under the auspices of the Office of the Provost and the Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development, launched the university’s first strategic hiring initiative. Designed to align Auburn’s research with funding trends, strengthen the faculty, and enhance the university’s research performance, the initiative began with nearly 50 faculty members who presented synopses of their scholarly work with others in Auburn’s intellectual community. 

“As a land-grant institution, Auburn University is committed to advancing knowledge and discovery through application and scholarly work,” said Auburn Provost Timothy Boosinger. “To promote successful interdisciplinary research, scholarship, creative work, and engagement activities, it is important to identify existing multidisciplinary opportunities for research and cultivate new ones. This is the intent and objective of the Cluster Hire Initiative.”

Following a rigorous proposal process, five strategic research cluster proposals were selected for funding. These clusters represent faculty from every college and school and support the university’s capacity to advance interdisciplinary research. Following is an overview of each cluster:

Health Disparities

At the broadest level, the goals for this cluster are to improve health in the community, state, region, nation, and world by identifying, understanding, and addressing health needs and health disparities. A special focus of the cluster is on the disadvantaged segments of these populations, which are often underserved by existing health care systems due to historically unequal treatment or injustice. Research is aimed at identifying the source of disparities and acting to alleviate them, and includes approaches that range from broadly based population studies to carefully controlled laboratory-based experimental models to identify how disparities occur.

To accomplish these goals, research scientists within the Health Disparities cluster form multidisciplinary collaborative research teams and partnerships to devise highly competitive research proposals designed to identify, understand, and remediate health disparities. Membership in this cluster is diverse, and research interests of the new faculty members range across a multitude of disciplines, such as: biomedicine, including obesity, diabetes, dementia, developmental disabilities, and cancer; socio-ecological factors that influence health and health-related decision-making, including environmental contaminants, substance abuse, dietary and exercise choices, income levels, and accessibility to available services related to somatic and mental health; and attitudes concerning preferred body sizes and satisfaction with body size. Research strategies include population-based epidemiological studies, employment of large-scale databases, and experimental and interventional studies with humans and laboratory animals. 

The Health Disparities cluster also is committed to the dissemination and translation of research discoveries to the widest range of potential audiences. These audiences include the relevant scientific communities, clinical professionals who act directly to maintain and promote public health, policy makers, the participants in research studies, and the public at large. Through dissemination and translation, the cluster members affect science, policy, and practices related to health and health disparities.

Members of the cluster are also committed to interdisciplinary education of undergraduate and graduate students that crosses traditional academic boundaries of colleges, schools, and departments in order to train a new generation of health disparities scholars and practitioners. This commitment is realized through inclusion of both undergraduate and graduate students in ongoing research, serving as guest lecturers in courses currently taught at Auburn and development of seminars and courses not currently offered at Auburn University. Sponsoring Colleges/Schools• College of Agriculture

• College of Education

• College of Architecture, Design and Construction

• School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences

• College of Human Sciences

• College of Liberal Arts

• School of Nursing

• Harrison School of Pharmacy

• College of Sciences and Mathematics

• College of Veterinary Medicine

• Alabama Cooperative Extension System

Pharmaceutical Engineering

The overarching objective of this cluster hiring initiative is to establish a cutting-edge interdisciplinary pharmaceutical engineering research and education program that will meet the current and future needs of the pharmaceutical industry, the state of Alabama, and the nation. 

More effective drugs with fewer adverse effects are needed to treat human diseases. The use of medications and the associated costs continue to rise. Clearly, there is a need to have more efficient and cost-effective ways to take drugs from the lab bench to the bedside. While there are many steps in this process, drug delivery/testing and manufacturing are key components that frequently do not receive sufficient attention. Questions such as what are the best formulations for maximum therapeutic effect and the optimal methods for manufacture must be addressed. 

Nationwide, there are only a few institutions, and none in the Southeast, that are using an integrated interdisciplinary approach to address these important issues in drug delivery and manufacturing. The sponsoring colleges/schools are committed to strategically promote and facilitate the interdisciplinary research and education needed to fill this critical gap. 

The Pharmaceutical Engineering Cluster will augment drug development, testing, and manufacturing efforts as well as offer interdisciplinary science and engineering research and training unavailable elsewhere in Alabama or the Southeast. Furthermore, this cluster addresses a national need for research along with the production of trained scientists and engineers who can deliver 21st-century solutions to problems on the critical path from discovery to commercialization of new medical products. 

This cluster will make Auburn University a key player in the field by strategically bringing together the resources and expertise of the sponsoring colleges/schools. The cluster will foster interdisciplinary research that will identify, develop, and test novel methods for drug delivery along with efficient methods for the manufacture of medications. Auburn University is uniquely positioned to build on existing strengths to develop an integrative approach to address these challenges. Research activities will be organized in four primary thrust areas: 

1. Drug Discovery, Molecular Synthesis & Diagnostics 

2. Manufacturing of Active Therapeutics 

3. Formulation, Transport, Testing & Delivery Methods 

4. Product Design & Regulation 

These topics comprise the entire process from identification of promising bioactive agents through efficacy and safety testing, manufacturing and delivery, to optimizing the impacts on dosing regimens and health outcomes research. Of vital importance, cluster members will take a holistic approach to these problems, as looking at each step individually may lead to suboptimal solutions. 

The cost of bringing a new drug to market has steadily increased to $500-800 million. As much as 75 percent of the total cost of each marketed drug is attributed to high failure rates of other candidates due to efficacy/safety problems. The high financial risk of drug development places great pressure on reducing cost and increasing productivity. Hence, tremendous opportunity exists for strategic academic research. Insightful integration of discovery, development, and manufacturing coupled with increased interaction among industry, academia, and government should improve efficiency in the health care sector.Sponsoring Colleges/Schools• Samuel Ginn College of Engineering 

• Harrison School of Pharmacy 

• College of Sciences and Mathematics 

• College of Veterinary Medicine

Climate, Human and Earth System Sciences (CHESS)

Multiple lines of scientific evidence have shown that global change including alterations in climate, air and water quality, and land use already have affected the ability of Earth’s ecosystems to provide people with food, energy, and water in many regions of the world. The U.S. National Climate Assessment indicates that U.S. ecosystems and our economic system are highly vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change, and already are experiencing increased impacts of persistent extreme weather events such as droughts, hurricanes, heat waves, and sea-level rise. 

To provide effective solutions to the most pressing global and regional environmental challenges as well as to support transformation towards global sustainability, it is of critical importance to pursue an interdisciplinary/systems approach to understanding, predicting, and reacting to changes in coupled human-earth systems across local to global scales. 

The climate, human, and earth system sciences, by their very nature, are large, complex, and multi-disciplinary. The CHESS Cluster builds on Auburn’s strengths in disciplinary research on biological and physical sciences and will leverage the work of current faculty in plant and animal sciences, ecosystems, water resources, geoscience, agronomy, forestry, geospatial science, computational science, and social sciences. 

New faculty hires in seven areas will fill the crucial gaps of our understanding about the interconnected and interdependent human and earth systems, and facilitate the integration of existing expertise across multiple disciplines of participating colleges into an interdisciplinary, system-oriented program. The seven new faculty hires will provide crucial expertise needed 1) to understand and predict climate change dynamics using an earth system modeling approach, 2) to understand the dynamics of coupled natural and human systems, 3) to assess far-reaching biological effects and responses of our food-crop systems, 4) to understand global and regional hydrological processes and water resources, 5) to use paleoclimate data and model for understanding the past to predict the future, 6) to address critical challenges for big data management and high-performance computing in CHESS, and 7) to address climate policy and the economic, political and socio-cultural dimensions of the climate-food-energy-water nexus. 

The activities of this cluster initially will be organized and administrated by the International Center for Climate and Global Change Research (ICCGCR), the CHESS Steering Committee and External Advisory Board. This cluster will propose and offer a new interdisciplinary Ph.D. degree program in CHESS based on the integration of scientific disciplines from five colleges and school. The existing ICCGCR Center is also proposed to upgrade to a new university-level Institute of Climate, Human and Earth System Sciences.Sponsoring Colleges/School• School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences

• College of Sciences and Mathematics

• College of Engineering

• College of Agriculture

• College of Liberal Arts

Omics and Informatics

Omics and informatics science is one of the strongest and fastest-growing disciplines within modern biology. The human genome project drove a technological revolution that now makes comparison of individual genomes from all forms of life possible and affordable. This technology has also facilitated high throughput sequencing of RNA and DNA, allowing a snapshot of gene function in cells to become extraordinarily accessible. Additionally, this research has fueled a better understanding of downstream aspects of gene expression including protein interactions (the proteome) and processes affected by chemical modifications of the genome (epigenomics), as well as energetics and metabolism (metabolomics). Among other societal needs, this flood of data allows unprecedented understanding, utilization, and management of natural resources, precision medicine, and genome-directed detection of pathogens in environmental and food production settings. However, these opportunities also create the pressing need to devise new approaches to collect, store and analyze this information. Simply put, this technology is the future of modern biology, and Auburn University is committed to being at the front of the field. 

Researchers at Auburn investigate many different aspects of the biology of a huge range of species while employing a common thread of omics-based approaches and informatics for the analysis of the data sets produced. Existing programs such as the Auburn University Research Initiative in Cancer, the Cell and Molecular Biosciences Program, and the Boshell Diabetes and Metabolic Diseases Research Program provide a rich collaborative environment. 

Auburn also possesses and continues to develop significant infrastructure including impressive computational resources and genomics technology. The Center for Comparative Genomics and Translational Research, established in the Fall of 2014 between Auburn University and the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, allows Auburn faculty to access world-class resources and further emphasizes the need to develop expertise, both jointly with HudsonAlpha, and independently, to pursue omics and informatics research at the highest levels. The Omics and Informatics Cluster will impact Auburn, Alabama, the country and the world in broad and far-ranging ways. The sponsors welcome those who want to be a part of this exciting program.

Sponsoring Colleges/School• College of Agriculture

• College of Sciences and Mathematics

• College of Veterinary Medicine

• Samuel Ginn College of Engineering

• Harrison School of Pharmacy

Scalable Energy Conversion Science & Technology

The focus of the Institute for Scalable Energy Conversion Science & Technology is to address the fundamental science and technology barriers that need to be overcome in order to economically produce and utilize small and otherwise underutilized energy sources in an environmentally beneficial manner. 

At present, the production and delivery of energy are dominated by extremely large capital investments, extensive supply and distribution infrastructure, and processing plants that economically scale only to very large sizes. As a result, many smaller, more remote, or seasonally available energy sources are grossly under-utilized, functionally stranded, and/or flared or vented into the environment (with deleterious results). 

Candidate energy sources that are suitable for smaller-scale processing plants include, among others: agricultural and forest biomass, land fill gas, anaerobic digester gas (biogas), food wastes, coal wastes, and a vast and ever-growing number of small oil and gas wells that populate Alabama as well as the Bakken (North Dakota) and the Eagle Ford (Texas) formations. 

The university environment is ideal for this research focus. The energy industry is focused on immediate return on investment and low risk. The university, with its diverse research background and a longer-term strategic horizon, is the right place to develop this science and technology portfolio. Auburn’s recent activities in bioenergy research highlight the need to reduce the scale of bioenergy-conversion technologies as well as the logistical systems employed to supply biomass to centrally located processing facilities at economically feasible costs. Furthermore, a number of the scalable gas-to-liquid (GTL) approaches needed for biogas or flare-gas conversion are almost identical to those required for agricultural or forest biomass, meaning that the fundamental approaches to be investigated in the Institute are central to the research and development agendas of all participating colleges. 

To accomplish the focus, the Institute will facilitate and leverage the scholarly and educational activities of both existing faculty as well as new cluster hires by studying the fundamental science of processing these materials into liquid fuels or chemical feedstocks, or by testing new and existing methods for tailoring this fundamental science to new technologies that can be mobile and applied in the field. The focus of this Institute is timely, unique to Auburn, and addresses pressing societal needs in energy security, environment and economic development.Sponsoring Colleges/School• College of Agriculture

• College of Sciences and Mathematics

• Samuel Ginn College of Engineering

• School of Forestry & Wildlife Sciences

In addition to the four newly hired faculty, the College of Veterinary Medicine has other faculty working in several of the cluster areas. They include:Health Disparities Cluster: Dr. James Wright and Dr. Stephanie Ostrowski, Department of Pathobiology.

Omics and Informatics Cluster: Dr. Frank “Skip” Bartol, associate dean of Research and Graduate Studies and interim director of the Scott-Ritchey Research Center; Dr. Bruce Smith, Department of Pathobiology and director of AURIC; Dr. Douglas Martin, Department of Anatomy, Physiology and Pharmacology; Dr. Tatiana Samoylova, Deartment of Pathobiology; and Dr. Paul Walz, Department of Pathobiology.

Pharmaceutical Engineering Cluster: Dr. Frank “Skip” Bartol, associate dean of Research and Graduate Studies and interim director of the Scott-Ritchey Research Center; Dr. Dawn Boothe and Dr. Douglas Martin, Department of Anatomy, Physiology and Pharmacology; and Dr. Tatiana Samoylova, Department of Pathobiology.

Dr. Nancy Merner

An assistant professor in the Department of Pathobiology, Dr. Merner pursued her graduate studies at Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada, where her dissertation focused on the genetics of hereditary breast cancer, deafness, and a specific form of sudden cardiac death (arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy, or ARVC). The most significant contribution of her doctoral studies came in 2008 with the discovery of TMEM43 as the cause of ARVC type 5. 

Dr. Merner pursued post-doctoral training in Montreal in the laboratory of Dr. Guy Rouleau, director of the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University. Her primary focus was in the application of next-generation sequencing techniques for the identification of genes associated with essential tremor, autism spectrum disorder, insensitivity to pain, and epilepsy. In 2012, Dr. Merner used exome sequencing to discover the first causative ET gene, FUS. 

In 2014, Dr. Merner became a research assistant professor in the Harrison School of Pharmacy at Auburn University. She established a cancer genetics research program that focuses on identifying genetic risk variants of hereditary cancer syndromes, particularly Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer (HBOC) Syndrome. 

Now as a faculty member in the College of Veterinary Medicine in the Omics and Informatics initiative, Dr. Merner is continuing her quest to find HBOC susceptibility genes and has incorporated a comparative genomics approach by studying both dogs and humans affected by the disease. Dr. Merner’s program is symbolized by her big pink bus, known as the “Gene Machine,” which serves as Dr. Merner’s mobile outreach and research program that aims to engage the community through an education and trust-building mechanism and offer research participation to individuals who would otherwise not have such opportunities. The Gene Machine travels all over the state to community events as well as scheduled education sessions and study enrollment appointments. The premise is to provide access. Alabama is a severely medically underserved state, and Dr. Merner strives to bring research and education to various communities for true inclusion.

Dr. Amarjit Mishra

An assistant professor in the Department of Pathobiology, Dr. Mishra is a member of the Pharmaceutical Engineering cluster initiative.

He earned his bachelor’s degree in veterinary sciences and animal husbandry in 2003 from the West Bengal University of Animal and Fishery Sciences of India. In 2005, he earned his master’s degree in animal biochemistry from Indian Veterinary Research Institute with a Junior Research Fellowship from Indian Council of Agricultural Research.

Dr. Mishra joined the Center for Veterinary Health Sciences, Oklahoma State University, in 2006 to work on purinergic P2X7 receptor and alveolar cell interactions during surfactant secretion and acute lung injury. 

In 2011, he received his Ph.D. in veterinary biomedical sciences from Oklahoma State University, and joined the lab of Dr. Stewart J. Levine in 2012 as a postdoctoral fellow at National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health.

While with the Levine lab, Dr. Mishra studied how dendritic cells modulate and propagate airway inflammation and responses to asthma. 

Dr. Mishra’s research approach underpins the contribution of progenitor cells to the molecular mechanisms cardinal to airway inflammation in asthmatics. A specific objective of his research is to identify novel endogenous signaling pathways and druggable targets in immune cells related to adaptive immunity and to investigate obesity-associated changes in dendritic cell function and airway inflammation.

Dr. Minander Sandey

An assistant professor of pathology in the Department of Pathobiology, Dr. Sandey’s research is teamed with the Pharmaceutical Engineering cluster initiative. 

Dr. Sandey earned a DVM from University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad in India in 2004, and following was awarded a Junior Research Fellowship to pursue a Master of Veterinary Science degree in animal biotechnology from the Indian Veterinary Research Institute, Izzatnagar, India. In 2005, he received a Ph.D. in veterinary biomedical sciences from Auburn University.

Dr. Sandey received a fellowship from EPSCoR in 2012 and an animal health and disease research grant for his Ph.D. project “Elucidation of genomic structure and biological functions of canine MDA-7 and its receptors.” He completed a three-year anatomic pathology residency at Auburn University and is board certified by the American College of Veterinary Pathologists.

Dr. Sandey’s research focuses on molecular profiling, molecular classification, and comparative aspects of canine cancer. His laboratory is developing novel adenoviral vectors for both oncolytic virotherapy and delivery of genes with antitumor properties such as canine melanoma differentiation associated gene-7. Additionally, his laboratory is characterizing a liver-specific knockout mouse model of human Niemann Pick disease type C.

Dr. Xu Wang

An assistant professor of comparative genomics in animal health in the Department of Pathobiology, Dr. Wang also holds a position as an adjunct faculty investigator in the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology. 

He received a bachelor’s degree in biological science in the School of Life Science at Fudan University in 2004 where he developed his honors thesis on genetic diversity of Chinese minority populations and linkage mapping of anthropometric traits in Dr. Li Jin’s lab. 

Dr. Wang earned his Ph.D. in genetics and genomics with Dr. Andrew Clark in the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics at Cornell University in 2011, with minors in biometry and computational biology. After completing his graduate work, Dr. Wang was appointed as a research associate in the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics and the Cornell Center for Comparative and Population Genomics before coming to Auburn.

A member of the Omics and Informatics cluster initiative, Dr. Wang’s research focuses on the genetic and epigenetic regulation of gene expression in vertebrates and insects, with emphasis on functional, evolutionary and comparative genomic analyses of epigenetically regulated allelic imbalance, whose mis-regulation is often involved in human and animal diseases including cancer, such as X chromosome inactivation and genomic imprinting.